Like "Barely Moving" ... At 90 mph

By Alan Abrahamson | Nov. 27, 2012, 2:30 p.m. (ET)
Michael Burke, Bryan Berghorn, Shane Hook and Alan Abrahamson(L-R) In the start house in Lake Placid before our 46 seconds in the sled: Michael Burke, driver Bryan Berghorn, brakeman Shane Hook, me.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- At the first turn, my head cracked against the right side of the bobsled.

Then the sled swung the other way, and my head slammed against the left side of the sled.

Good thing I was wearing a helmet. But for 46 seconds, I pretty much felt like a bobblehead doll as we rocketed down the bobsled course, the same one they were running a World Cup event on that weekend.

I was the No. 2 guy in a four-man sled that late afternoon and, frankly, they were being nice to me -- Bryan Berghorn, the driver; Michael Burke, the No. 3 guy; and Shane Hook, the brakeman. We didn't start at the top of the course. We put in a few turns down. We only reached about 70 mph. Not 80 or more, like they do when they really mean it.

"I'd do rides all night if I could," Berghorn, a Lake Placid guy, said, and now having done it once, experienced the wild roller coaster ride, it begs the question -- how in the world do you learn to maneuver these things? (By the way, not to brag -- OK, I'm bragging: I did not get woozy or worse.)

With the Sochi 2014 Games approaching, bobsled is increasingly soaking up the spotlight. The U.S. team features standouts such as Steven Holcomb, the reigning four-man Olympic and world champion, and his powerhouse pushman Steve Langton; moreover, track and field stars such as Tianna Madison and Lolo Jones are making a bid to join the 2014 Olympic team.

 Alan Abrahamson photo of sled
 It's no Night Train but they did
let it reach speeds of about 70 mph.
Victory in a bobsled race typically comes by fractions of a second.

Control matters.

So how do you achieve that control?

Because, just to be obvious, ice is really slippery.

Well, to be equally obvious, you don't achieve that control overnight.

It takes a lot of practice. With that practice comes experience. And with that experience comes feel.

And then, finally, comes confidence.

Jazmine Fenlator started on the bobsled in 2007 after running track in college. Her first ride, she said, "was not comfortable -- in all honesty, it felt like someone stuffed me in a garbage can and someone rolled me down the hill." But, she said, "I definitely enjoyed the thrill."

That was in the back of a sled, of course. Someone else drove.

After a few trips in Park City, Utah, in the front in 2008, she finally went to formal driving school in 2009 in Lake Placid. "What takes getting used to," she said, "is staying calm and staying relaxed. You don't feel the G forces as much but you do feel the pressure."

She said, "I definitely relate it to being a teen-age driver with your permit to being a driver five years later," adding, "Over time you become more aware and more comfortable."

With corresponding results.

After working her way up to several World Cup starts last year, Fenlator and Jones took silver at the World Cup event here in Lake Placid; teammates Elana Meyers and Madison took the bronze.

For his part, Holcomb said, "It's just like anything else. You don't start at the top your first time. You start where you did. And then you go down a few times. Your first couple runs -- you're absolutely terrible, you're bouncing off walls. It's a learning curve. And then you get to the point where you understand what you're doing."

Think about what it's like, even as an experienced driver, when you first merge onto an interstate highway, he said. You look to your left and all the cars are going 70 or 75 miles per hour. Everything seems to be going so fast.

Now give it 10 minutes.

You're cruising down the highway at 75. The speed is relative. You're so in control that you can fiddle with the radio, or eat an apple, or whatever, all the while keeping your eye on the road -- and, again, you're doing 75. More, if the highway patrol isn't around, right?

That's what it's like when you have experience on the track. Doing 75, or even 80, doesn't seem at all perilous.

In fact, it's just like what football players say. The game slows down.

Holcomb won the two-man race in Lake Placid, and then again at the next tour stop, in Park City, and would go on to win the two-man for a third straight race, in Whistler, B.C.

Before that third race, on a track widely considered the fastest in the world, he said, "We're going 85 to 90 miles per hour here in Whistler. It's fast. But I can see everything in front of me. I'm in control. I know exactly what is going on.

"It feels," he said, "like we are barely moving."

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